3. Put Your Hands in the Air

I have an anger management problem that has gotten worse in the last couple of years, and the problem is centered around my kids. I get angry and I stop listening to my better self – some beast underneath seems to take over. Then of course I get angry at myself for being so angry, for storming around and yelling, so then I’m even angrier. I end up just having to get away and that is sometimes hard to do. It’s hard for my more reasonable, kind, and gentle self to re establish control.

I’ve found one plan that is helping me get that control back, just a little. When I start to feel a flash of anger, I simply put my hands in the air. A few things happen when I do this. Number one, I feel like an idiot. Number two, my kids ask me why my hands are in the air, and number three, I really want to get them back down right away. All of these, however, are things different from anger, and that helps.

In the past, I’ve also done push-ups when trying to change a behavior, but that can be difficult in all situations. But even if my hands are full I can get at least get one hand in the air. It gives me a marker of my anger (how many times did I raise my hand today?), an action that I can do to feel more in control, and distraction to help me cool down. It is also a neutral action – it doesn’t reinforce my sense of myself as bad or out of control. It makes me take myself a little less seriously.

2. Meditating

So, right, meditating is really supposed to help. I know this. I even know it does help. For crying out loud, I’ve done a week long silent meditation retreat. But I still don’t do it. Just sitting still for a half hour is a terrible terrible idea. So right now I am invisioning a couch-to-5k program, but for my brain. I start with 1 minute. In this system you meditate every day because that’s good for building a habit. But on two days you can fall back to a much shorter time. The system works like this

Week One:

  • 1 min x 2
  • 2 min x 2
  • 3 min x 2
  • Then back to 1 minute

Week Two:

  • 2 min x 2
  • 4 min x 2
  • 6 min x 2
  • Then back to 2 minutes.

Week Three:

  • 4 min x 2
  • 7 min x 2
  • 10 min x 2
  • Then back to 4 minutes.

Week Four:

  • 7 min x 2
  • 11 min x 2
  • 15 min x 2
  • Then back to 5 minutes.

Week Six and Beyond:

  • 15 minutes x 4
  • 5 minute x 3

If you struggle with a week, just stay on that week the next week, or back up a week if needed.

Doing it Better

I am always looking for a way to “do it better.” I’ve used a lot of systems and strategies — techniques for getting things done, for tracking tasks, for organizing, for getting my kids organized, for cleaning my house. But I’m getting tired of the hunt, and I’m realizing that I have a lot of experience, so I’m going to start keeping track, recording what works, putting everything in a repository I can go back to.

Today I am struggling with motivation and with anxiety about the coming summer. So the next few posts are going to be about things I decided to do today!

New Beginnings

So last semester, I had my first semester off of teaching in maybe 13 years. The last six years or so, I have taken every summer off, but I this is the first time I have been eligible for sabbatical. I expected it to be both relaxing and productive. I’m quite good at organizing and motivating myself to do research and other outside work during the semester and the summer, so I anticipated that this fall would be more of the same.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Apparently, my life is held together by pressure, and without that pressure, I was entirely at a loss as to what to do. Don’t get me wrong, I got things done on my sabbatical project, especially if you are a representative of the university I work for. If you are, then I got tons done. Every day. Wildly productive. But for the rest of you, I struggled the whole time. Even simple tasks became nearly impossible.

So now I am back at work, and I’m both humbled and happy. I taught my first classes this week, and it was fun to prepare them. By the end of the spring semester last year, I felt burned out, and found I wasn’t all that happy teaching. But a break can be an amazing thing, and right now I feel grateful to have the familiarity, rhythm, and challenge of teaching. This semester, I am teaching Patterns and Functions (aka Pre-calculus), Calculus I, and two sections of a course I developed called Math, Art, and Design. Here’s what I’m doing.

  1. Patterns and Functions. We started by doing an exercise where students got into pairs and then determined which of three functions matched a description given in words. I got this from Approximately Normal. That went well, and then we backed up and talked about what a function actually is, giving examples and connecting the definition to the general notion the students had that functions had to do with dependency. Then we did just a couple of the “team graphing” graphs from Study of Change. The point that I made there is how easy the task is when we can clearly name what should be drawn (like “a stick figure”) and how we can use the language we’ll be developing in P+F to be able to name more things clearly, and thus to get better and this task. Perhaps we’ll revisit it later in the semester. Tomorrow we’ll talk about domain, range, and piecewise functions, and we’ll use Des-man from Desmos.
  2. Calculus. We started with simulating the spread of a disease through a dice-rolling lab from Gary De Young. Working through that took even more time than we had, and we’ll be finishing the activity up tomorrow. I wanted to start the semester by giving them a project we can keep working on throughout the semester, and also provide a way to start the course with a context, so that we can come back to it to make the ideas we learn meaningful. On Friday, we will finish that up, and then move into an activity with spreadsheets, because I want to get students using spreadsheets pretty heavily this semester.
  3. Math / Art / Design. This class is weekly and doesn’t start until this upcoming Monday. Unlike in previous years, we are starting by talking about perspective, so we are going to do a tape-drawing activity like this one.

So far, I’m happy. I feel more relaxed. I like my students. My difficulties with sabbatical really did humble me, and allowed me to see that it may not be the best idea in the world to push myself so hard that without the constant pressure I collapse. We’ll see how I do.

How can you help your kids in math?

I ran across this post today at The Educators Room, titled It Starts at Home: How Parents Can Help Their High School Students in Advanced Mathematics. I like essay overall — it speaks to parents who may not have been comfortable with math when they were in school, and gives them some ideas about how they can help their children without having to become math experts. I particularly like what the author relates about his mother, who supported him in math even though she felt that she was “bad at it.” These days, I know we discourage parents from saying “I’m not really good at math” to their kids, but I also think it’s important that we don’t lie to our children. It’s OK to let our kids see us struggle — they can learn perseverance and see us not simply giving up because we are “bad” at something. So let your kid know that math has been tough for you, and then listen to them while they explain some math to you, and really try to understand what they say. It will do your child a world of good to see you trying and learning. I also like that the author of the article reminds parents that there are a lot of different skills needed in math.

Mostly, this essay reminds me that I’d really like to write my own “how to help your child in math” essay, so perhaps this is the poke that I need to move forward on that!

Classroom poster with students names and mastered math facts

Shame in classrooms

I ran across a blog post by Brené Brown earlier today. In the post she relates some of the kurfluffle around her comments to Oprah Winfrey about teachers and shame (original video now hard to find — its the last clip on this page). This all happened at the end of September, so I’m late to the party, but I had a few thoughts about what happened here . To my mind, the biggest place where Brown goes wrong is when she says that shame is a classroom management tool used in schools. By calling shame a tool, she implied that the use of shame was conscious, and since her whole thing is talking about how bad shame is, that’s a pretty damning way to call teachers out as being bad for kids. That turned her comments into a public shaming of teachers. Brown didn’t intend to shame teachers, but that’s the sneaky way shame works — it’s everywhere, and it is hard to avoid.

Shame is certainly present in every classroom — it is a nearly ubiquitous emotion, so it happens in classrooms like it happens everywhere. For the moment, let’s try to avoid shaming the emotion of shame — shame and the threat of shame are intertwined with nearly every connection we have with other people. That’s not good or bad, it just is. When our relationships are working, we are able to use subtle clues about shame in ourselves and others to figure out how to navigate the relationships without alienating ourselves or other people. But an excessive weight of shame, or shame that calcifies in certain areas can break our relationships, causing disconnection and isolation. In classrooms, both students and teachers can feel shame, and that shame is a signal to us that our relationships are either fractured, or in danger of being fractured. Teachers feel it when they are disrespected by parents, administrators, and other teachers. Students feel it when they understand that they aren’t worthy of connection with classmates, teachers, and specialist because they aren’t good enough. We have to watch for signs of shame in other people, and use it as a sign of relationship danger. Relationships can be repaired and shame can be healed.

Teachers care about kids, that’s why they become teachers. They work hard every day to help kids succeed. They also face a job that is so difficult, so painful, so demanding of every resource they have. They do it without enough pay, and with a whole world watching to see where they are going to screw up first. In other words, teachers do their jobs in an environment that is a shame pressure cooker. When people are in that kind of pressure cooker, they will push their shame onto other people, and it is easiest to push shame onto weaker people. I do it as a teacher to my students, and I do it as a parent to my kids. I don’t do it because I’m a bad person, or because I am sitting around cackling and thinking up ways to torture students and children. I do it because I am human, and fallible, and, because, as Brown said in her mea culpa post “learning is vulnerable and classrooms are tender places.” We do need to raise awareness of the presence of shame in classrooms because awareness is really one of the only ways to combat shame. But we have to raise that awareness gently and carefully because any time we start to really see how shame operates in our lives it is easy to become overwhelmed.

I do think there are some institutional practices that increase students vulnerability to shame in schools. Particularly, I am thinking about public accountability in classrooms. In elementary math classes, you will sometimes find charts of times tables and other math facts, where you can see how each student is doing on proving their mastery. Short timed tests like “mad minute” are used in most elementary classrooms, and those are also a form of public accountability since all the students know who finishes on time and who doesn’t because they can look around and see everyone, including those kids that inevitably shouted out as soon as they were finished, before the timer rang, stopping the kid who still had half a page of problems left. Public accountability charts are also used for behavior management and in other subjects. For some kids, this is highly motivating. Students want to do well and the competitive spin of public results help spur them to work. But for other students, being at the bottom (or even in the middle) week after week is demoralizing and shaming. I think that in order to support all students, we need to have students set goals and chart their progress, but that this should be private. This won’t provide the competition that helps some students focus, but it will avoid the discouragement and feelings of shame and stupidity that other students experience.

Classroom poster with students names and mastered math facts

Here not only is your math prowess public, but it’s linked to ice cream

We can’t change the fact that in every classroom, the students know where they stand in academic rankings. All of the students know who is at the highest reading level and who is still struggling to read beginning books. They all know who finishes the math assignments before everyone else and who never finishes. We humans are constantly comparing ourselves to others, and figuring out where and how we rank. But when those rankings are publicly displayed, their importance is reinforced, even if the teacher is telling the students verbally that effort and progress are the most important things. We need to put the rankings away and to consistently remind students that they need to look to themselves to measure progress. They need to be better able to handle fractions at the end of the unit than they were at the beginning. They don’t need to be better than another student, they need to be better than they used to be. We also need to talk to students about how we handle that terrible feeling we have when we realize that we aren’t doing as well at something as we wish we were. We need to talk with our kids about how to manage the pain when we find out we sang the wrong note, or messed up all the problems, or our drawing wasn’t selected for the prize, or we realize that our friends are all reading at a higher grade level than we are. If we avoid emphasizing rankings and do some explicit teaching around how to handle the emotions that arise when we fail or don’t do as well as we would like, then we give students the tools to navigate pressure and criticism without falling into a pit of shame. Most teachers already do a lot of work to combat shame, but connecting the dots on the impact and mechanisms of shame can help teachers better see what they are doing and how to do it effectively.